The artists behind Bengal’s iconic Kalighat paintings are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
Sitting on the stairs of Kolkata’s iconic Victoria Memorial Hall, Ganga Chitrakar is hard at work. As deft strokes emerge from his brush, the piece of cloth in front of him is transformed into a beautiful work of art within minutes. Using bold vegetable colours, Ganga manages to successfully depict the issue of Naxalism in Nandigram, a village in West Medinipur. He is one of the several artists who have been invited by the Victoria Memorial Hall Museum as part of the ongoing Kalighat Painting Exhibition. Some of the paintings are based on contemporary themes such as the 9/11 strike on the World Trade Centre, child marriage and water conservation.
Bengal’s Kalighat paintings have interesting origins. In the 19th century, patuas or painters used to sit around the Kalighat Mandir in southern Kolkata and draw on pieces of cloth or pat. The paintings were characterised by straight lines, soft curves and the use of vegetable colours. They were extremely popular with pilgrims who would marvel at the artistic narratives about goddess Kali, Ram-Sita and Radha-Krishna. As time passed, the patuas couldn’t restrict themselves to simply painting gods. During the Mughal rule, a lot of these artists converted to Islam and began narrating new stories. In time, these paintings began to attract the attention of the babus-bibis and the British who lived in the southern part of the city, also known as White Calcutta. Though the painters could not visit the British, they read the newspapers for inspiration.
With the turn of the century, the patuas went back to their villages, leaving behind the environs of the Kalighat temple. A large number of them relocated to a village called Naya in the West Medinipur district. They began to take the title of chitrakar or patua to specify their caste status. Today these artists live in dire conditions, though the situation has been improving in the last couple of years with some of them gaining international recognition.
Some organisations have been doing their bit to bring this rich painting tradition to prominence. For instance, Banglanatok Dot Com, a social enterprise, has been working with 230 artists, in collaboration with the European Union. “Patuas in various districts have some signature styles. For instance, the ones in Murshidabad have a lot of detailing in their work. Also, originally, the Kalighat paintings were made only in black and white; the colours came in only later,” says Ranjan Sen, creative head, Banglanatok Dot Com.
The organisaton is working around the concept of ‘shilpi bachley shilpo bachbey’ (if artists live only then will art survive). “While earlier, their monthly income was around Rs 500-600, today the average income of these artists is approximately Rs 7,000 to Rs 8,000 per month,” says Sen.
There are artists like Anwar Chitrakar who has managed to sell one of his paintings to the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation for Rs 80,000. Anwar, whose paintings have been showcased at the Harley Gallery in the United Kingdom, recently released a graphic novel about a thousand Kalighat paintings. “Initially I used to sell an 8 by 12 inches painting for Rs 100-150 a piece but now I sell them for Rs 800 a piece on an average. I have also sold paintings for Rs 75,000 to Rs 85,000 a piece depending upon the size of the painting,” says Anwar. Four of his paintings are being showcased as part of the ‘New Artist Section’ in the exhibition.